The Economic Development Commission met for the first time yesterday and immediately sparked fears that it could foster collusion between big business and government.
It emerged that commission members will not be required to hand in written statements declaring their interests - instead, they are required simply to make it clear during meetings when any conflict of interests arise. Its meetings will be held behind closed doors.
In contrast, executive councillors must make written declarations that are published on the council's website.
"It is very dangerous," Democratic Party lawmaker James To Kun-sun said. "It will break Hong Kong's good tradition of preventing conflict of interest. It means the beginning of collusion."
The commission, announced in Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's policy address, will make recommendations to the government on strategy and policy to enhance economic development and to identify and support growth industries.
To said that as the commission's 26 members would help shape the direction of the economy, possibly involving investments of tens of billions of dollars, it was unacceptable not to have written declarations.
University of Science and Technology political scientist Dixon Sing Ming agreed.
However, legislator and former security chief Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee believed declaring interests during meetings should be sufficient. "The Legco and Exco registers require members to declare all interests from the beginning. This could be too big a hurdle for businessmen," she said.
Leung had said there would be a mechanism for declaring members' interests and they would "stay away" from making decisions which would constitute any direct conflict of interest. "The focus should be on overall economic interest," he added.
Following the commission's first meeting, the chief executive told a press conference that the government would not rule out investing directly in the economy if deemed necessary. "There are precedents for direct investment, such as Ocean Park, Disneyland and the MTR," he said.
Many commission members are business veterans.
Victor Fung Kwok-king is group chairman of Li & Fung; Irons Sze Wing-wai is president of the Chinese Manufacturers' Association; and Lau Ping-cheung works with property development and electronics companies.
The members emerged from the meeting in positive mood.
The government is ready to plan for the next 10 to 20 years, Allan Zeman, chairman of Ocean Park, said . "The government used to have its hands off. Now, like Singapore, it is showing quite a strong leadership."
Sze said he would welcome direct investment by the government; it should help manufacturers set up a mainland version of Hong Kong Brands and Products Expo Fair to showcase local manufacturers and turn the city into a base for testing, certification and research and development.
Non-members had other suggestions.
Economist Raymond So Wai-man said the government should focus on nurturing disadvantaged industries which could help reallocate wealth to poorer sectors instead of making investments which directly compete with private companies. "Establishing state-run enterprises is not the way to go," he said.
Allen Ha, chairman of the Lantau Economic Development Alliance, called upon the government to build malls in the island's public housing estates with shops that sold mid-price goods. It should also boost the city's tourism capacity by supplying more land for hotels.